I was drawn to the field of Anthropology because of its ability to attend to how people navigate relations of power in everyday life. I believe in the power of ethnography to capture the nuances of people’s multi-layered experiences of systems, institutions, and policies. I completed my doctoral studies in Cultural Anthropology at Rice University, where I conducted research on migrant-targeted social welfare policies in Melbourne, Australia, observing the everyday work of family violence prevention workers, policymakers, and migrant community leaders. After completing my PhD, I spent two years as an Assistant Professor (general faculty) at the University of Virginia’s Global Studies Program, where I taught courses in refugee mobilities, refugee resettlement, global policing, migrant-led political activism, and critical studies of globalization.
Since 2008, I have been involved in public education and programming on Afghan diasporic life through ongoing collaborations with artists, writers, and scholars. I believe in the power of public scholarship and engaged research in a time of mass displacement and ongoing imperial violence. My work aims to provide a critical ethnographic perspective on the lived experiences of displacement and borders in the enduring present of empire.
Inspired by my public education work with Afghan American artists and writers around Afghan diasporic experiences of displacement, detention, and dissent, my current project is an ethnographic and historical study of Afghan American and Afghan Australian diasporic activism over the past twenty years around the mass displacement and global asylum regime produced during the Global War on Terror. The project examines how living as first and second-generation migrants in settler colonial states shape the forms that political dissent can take, in the hopes of advancing an analysis of the entanglements of diasporas, border formations, empire, and coloniality.
Grounded in ethnographic methods, my research is interested in the many spaces where logics of border control unfold, from social welfare, to theaters of war, to sites of refuge and asylum, with a focus on Australia and the United States.
My first book titled Between Care and Criminality: Marriage, Citizenship, and Family in Australian Social Welfare (2023, Rutgers University Press) examines the implementation of a social policy designed to prevent forced marriage within recently arrived Muslim migrant communities in Australia. Known for its steadfast commitment to multiculturalism yet its historically exclusionary immigration policies, Australia’s approach to migrant integration is full of paradoxes. This book explores how these paradoxes unfold in the domain of social welfare. In a time when demonstrating ‘healthy family relationships’ is increasingly being emphasized as a marker of good citizenship, Muslim migrant communities have been situated as sites of concern for assimilationist social policy. This book traces the experiences of social welfare practitioners as they learn to implement forced marriage prevention policy in the name of eliminating coercive forms of sociality. It looks at what it means to care and empower migrants while further subjecting their intimate familial relations to the gaze of policing and immigration apparatuses.
My more recent research seeks to use ethnographic and historical methods to conceptualize the relationship between empire, settler colonialism, and borders through the Afghan diasporic experience in Australia and the United States. By examining displaced people’s encounters with multi-sited border regimes during the Global War on Terror (2001-2021), this project seeks to advance an ethnographically grounded theory of border imperialism.
In Australia, I am conducting research on Afghan migrant experiences of and politics around Australia’s offshore detention regime from 2001 to 2019. Designed to deter asylum seekers seeking refuge in mainland Australia, offshore detention has a unique political geography organized around remote archipelagoes historically subject to Australian colonial exploits. In this project, I seek to move beyond traditional conceptions of offshore detention as a fixed carceral infrastructure that is only locatable on a collection of invisible islands. Rather, I turn to offshore detention as a geographically disbursed regime of discipline and penality through focusing on its transnational effects on social relations in Afghanistan, Manus and Nauru, and Australia. As an assemblage of infrastructures, disciplinary technologies, and affectively-charged discourses that enact power in theaters of war and refuge, offshore detention impacts asylum seekers well before the journey to Australia. This project seeks to advance a more geographically and temporally fluid understanding of detention’s carceral logics and what it tells us about Australia as an imperial power. Finally, I ask what forms of political consciousness emerge in the wake of asylum seeker encounters with this multi-sited apparatus?
This project also seeks to critically interrogate sovereignty-making as a malleable practice rooted in histories of both migrant exclusion and settler inclusion. I am interested in how Australian information deterrence campaigns that circulate across refugee camps and war zones during the Global War on Terror seek to discipline migrant futures and subjectivities and might be extending the logic of carcerality. How do such campaigns compare to information campaigns encouraging settlers from the Anglophone world to migrate to Australia during the ’Asian scare’ and the creation of Australian federation in the 19th century? How do such campaigns conceptualize migrants as vectors of the nation-state’s future erosion or prosperity?
Within the United States, I am developing a project on how Afghan American community advocates encounter American empire within immigration bureaucracies. The project turns to the lived experience of Afghan Americans who supported Afghan nationals displaced as a result of the 2021 US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, in their applications for humanitarian parole, a form of temporary admissibility into the United States. I am interested in how they interpret the bureaucratic hurdles of humanitarian parole as performative, punitive, and as abandonment. Alongside this, I am working on writing a socio-legal history of humanitarian parole as a technology of border imperialism.
2023. Zeweri, Helena and Thomas Gregory. “‘Outside the Wire’: Brereton and the Dehumanization of Afghan Civilians.” Australian Journal of Political Science: Special Issue on Australian War Crimes in Afghanistan: Race, Gender, and Responsibility 58(3): 256-271.
2023. Zeweri, Helena and Tessa Farmer. “Beyond Deconstruction and Towards Decoloniality: Pedagogy and Curriculum Design in SWANA and South Asia Studies in US Higher Education.” In Development Studies in Times of Post-Developmentalism: Towards Decolonial, Convivial, and Solidaristic Approaches. Biekart, Kees, Laura Camfield, Uma Kothari, and Henning Melber, eds. Pp. 117-137. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
2023. Zeweri, Helena. “Carceral Coloniality as a History of the Present.” In Freedom, Only Freedom: The Writings of Behrouz Boochani. Boochani, Behrouz, Moones Mansoubi, and Omid Tofighian, eds. Pp. 245-248. London: Bloomsbury Press.
2023. Zeweri, Helena. “Configuring Forced Marriage as a Foil to Arranged Marriage in Multicultural Australia,” In Arranged Marriage: The Politics of Tradition, Resistance, and Change. Berta, Peter, ed. Pp. 91-107. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
2021. Zeweri, Helena and Eloy Gardea. “Cultivated Intuition: Reframing Migrant Responses to the ‘Public Charge’ Policy.” Ethnic and Racial Studies: Special Issue on Conditional Citizenship. 45(6): 1034-1053.
2021. Zeweri, Helena and Sara Shinkfield. 2021. “Centering Migrant Community Voices in Forced Marriage Prevention Social Policy.” Australian Journal of Social Issues 56(3): 427-442.
2020.“Beyond Response and Representation: Muslim Australian Women Reimagining Anti-Islamophobia Politics”, Feminist Formations 32(2): 111-135.
2017.“The Specter of Failure: Rendering Afghan Women as Sites of Precarity in Empowerment Regimes.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 4: 441-455.
Select Public Scholarship:
Zeweri, Helena and Wazhmah Osman. “Afghan Women and Self-Determination: Always Resisting Empire.” Against the Current. Jan/Feb. 2022.
Osman, Wazhmah, Helena Zeweri, and Seelai Karzai. 2021. “The Fog of the Forever War with a Laugh Track in ‘United States of Al’”, Middle East Research and Information Project.
2020.“Managing Refugee Mobilities: Global Flows of Migration Deterrence Technologies,” Platypus: The Blog of the Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing.
2018. “Australia’s Values-Based Asylum Activism.” Anthropology News. 20 August 2018.
2017. “Encounters on the Shore: Geographies of Violence in Australia’s Contemporary Border Regime,” Rejoinder: Institute for Research on Women-Rutgers University.
Between Care and Criminality: Marriage, Citizenship, and Family in Australian Social Welfare (2023, Rutgers University Press).
2023, UBC Hampton New Faculty Research Grant for “Transitory Citizens: A Case Study of Afghan Cameleers’ Experiences of Cross-Border Mobility in Australia, 1860-1930”
2023, Social Science and Humanities Research Council Insight Development Grant for “Beyond Refuge: The Political Afterlife of Offshore Detention on Afghan Refugees in Australia”
2023, Australian Anthropology Society Engaged Anthropology Prize for “Beyond Refuge: Afghan Refugee Rights Activism in Australia,” April 2023
2021, Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Fieldwork Grant, University of Virginia
2016, Visionary Partners Dissertation Fellowship, Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, Rice University
2016, Social Science Research Institute Dissertation Fellowship, Rice University
2016, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research Dissertation Fieldwork Grant
2016, American Institute of Afghanistan Studies John F. Richards Fellowship for Dissertation Research